Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Southeast-Asia Trip Highlights Harper's Trade-Focused International Agenda

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Southeast-Asia Trip Highlights Harper's Trade-Focused International Agenda

Article excerpt

Trade tops Harper's international agenda

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BALI, Indonesia - Negotiations on a new trade pact involving 12 Pacific Rim countries won't likely be completed by their year-end target date, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday, while lauding what he called "rapid progress" on "the most ambitious free trade negotiations ever undertaken."

Harper wrapped up a two-day summit of Asia-Pacific leaders -- and a week-long Southeast Asia trade junket -- with a number of incremental agreements designed to facilitate Canadian commerce in these emerging economies.

The prime minister returns to Canada and the resumption of Parliament having cleared his schedule of yet another summit, next month's biennial Commonwealth leaders meeting in Sri Lanka, which he is boycotting.

The snub of Sri Lanka over human rights abuses highlights the new reality of Harper's international agenda.

The stern moralist who once chided Communist China by saying Canada wouldn't "sell out to the almighty dollar" is now fully prepared to talk turkey with less-than-savoury governments if it furthers Canadian economic interests.

"The priority we have at APEC -- as we do in virtually all of our activities and travels -- is obviously the economy," Harper told reporters after the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum concluded.

He made it clear that his decision to reject Sri Lanka's chairmanship of the 64-member Commonwealth grouping revolves around an entirely different set of priorities.

Trade is not the Commonwealth's focus, but rather it "has as its core mission the promotion of values of good governance, human rights and respect for people and their cultures and diversity," Harper said.

"That's the essence of what the Commonwealth is supposed to be all about."

Sri Lanka, which is still reeling from a decades-long civil war involving its Tamil minority, is not living up to that ideal.

It is all well and good to honour history and tradition, said the prime minister, but "honouring the traditions of British history is not ... a sufficient role for the Commonwealth."

Canada's boycott has come in for criticism even from within Harper's own Conservative ranks.

Former cabinet minister Steven Fletcher responded to the announcement this week by noting that Harper went to the Congo last year for the Francophonie meeting. …

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